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Richard Mosse


Safe From Harm, North Kivu, eastern Congo, 2012
© Richard Mosse Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery

For the Deutsche Borse this year I’m rooting for Richard Mosse’s project Infra. Representing conflict, tragedy and trauma is not without its problems. The aestheticization of pain and suffering is of course problematic, and it could be argued that Infra offers this in spades. The project documents the conflict in eastern Congo using large format sheets of Kodak Aerochrome infrared film, and the resulting imagery is vivid – even lurid – and (I hate to use this word but it does the trick…) ‘surreal’. The work has been credited for subverting the kinds of representation of civil and tribal warfare in Africa that has sadly become clichéd. Mosse’s photographs are anything but familiar. If they remind us of the horrors that are ongoing, then surely that’s got to be a good thing? As well as the aesthetic of the material, the use of infrared film – that was intended for military surveillance – within the theatre of war rather than from the relative safety of some hi tech aeroplane, is also interesting.
Infrared often fascinates photographers. It’s an opportunity to render an image as another thing might ‘see’ it and serves as a reminder that human perception might do the job well for us, but it isn’t a definitive way of seeing. Sadly, with the ease of access to and use of Photoshop etc. the infrared look has become a novelty. Several times I’ve come across the particularly grating phase “eye-popping” when I’ve looked into enthusiasts messing around with filters, levels and so on, to achieve the kind of kitch imagery that might find its way on to a poster on sale in Glastonbury High Street. Richard Mosse’s imagery is kind of spectacular, but it doesn’t leave your eyes dangling by their nerve endings for the sake of it. There is a lot more going on here, even if it’s the simple observation that the craziness of his pictures reflects the insanity of war. If you’re not convinced that Mosse has thought a lot about this complex subject, I urge you to have a look at some of his other works on his website, particularly Kill Cam. Plenty has been written around Infra, that can be read on Mosse’s website here, student perspectives can be seen in the comments about a study visit to the Infra exhibition in 2012 at the Open Eye Gallery.
This is the first of four posts by photography tutors about the finalists for this years Deutsche Börse Prize

Posted by author: Jesse
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12 thoughts on “Richard Mosse

  • Can’t help but note that the body of work is called Infra when, in spite of the innovative approach, the subject seems to be a greater importance.

    • I think this is a really valid point, Amano. In this respect, the work is contrary to my thoughts that successful documentary work should leave viewers primarily discussing the subject and the issues presented by the photographer, rather than just talking about the photographer’s methodology.
      I haven’t read any critic’s (or Mosse’s) interpretation of the title. The word does mean ‘below’ (according to the dictionary on my bookshelf at least!), and perhaps in this respect the title of the work relates to the superficiality of the photographic surface, and the extent of the complexity of the subject that Mosse examines here. I haven’t read it, but according to the review in Source, Mosse is extremely aware and articulate (in terms of his writing) about the war in the Congo.
      In a way, the fact that Mosse so conspicuously references the means of production, he denies our ability to criticise it? So, he’s being ironic, essentially. Maybe? I don’t know. Like I said, I haven’t really made my mind up…

  • Photography as an art form is about experimentation but I think that this project went too far. If you wish to enjoy working in infrared do not choose such a serious subject to experiment with.
    I can understand the argument that it may be possible for the more visually literate to see beyond the characteristics of the film, but good documentary work is to inform as clearly as possible and this shift into Infrared, clouds the issues; bubble gum pink as a background to a portrait of a child soldier is taking experimentation too far. Surely this image should be showing the tragedy of a boy whose childhood has been ripped from him by the political problems in his land, not funny colours.

    • I have considerable sympathy with your misgivings Nick, but I think Richard Mosse’s work has an impact because the strangeness of the colours makes us stop and take notice. It causes us to hesitate and think before moving on. The danger with ‘straight’ documentary is rather than seeing the tragedy, we tick the box that says ‘seen it before’ and move on without pausing to reflect.

    • If this were photojournalism, images made for the daily paper, I might well agree with you but but using an outdated medium that was once used for military surveillance that produces exotic colours the artist is making a series of ironic comments on the way we observe (surveillance again?) military (outdated?) conflict in far-off (exotic?) places. As is usually with imagery of a more or less post-modern nature, there are many layers of meaning and amongst others I think that there is a questioning of what we see as reality, truth and even beauty. Certainly there is an element of the post-modern sublime here. To see documentary practice simply as recording events and or taking a simple approach to representing particularly tragedy rather undervalues both the creative possibilities of the practice and the capabilities of its audience…the world is a complex place and representing it is a complex activity.

  • I saw this body of work at last years Bienalle in Venice, it was without doubt one of the strongest exhibits at the whole festival. The use of the film stock is only a small part of the work, but the one that attracts most debate, I urge all to seek out this work. I don’t bet, but to me this is the winner, by a country mile.

    • I too picked the work ,as far as I was concerned it was a mile ahead, but to really understand the power of the work it requires
      the installation and not just a few images at the Photographers Gallery,I was lucky enough to catch it at Venice last year,one of the stand out exhibitions at the biennial .

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